For Couples

For Couples

GRATEFUL? YES. GENEROUS? WELL…

NOV 01

KEVIN

As I write to you this month from the northern half of the United States, our autumn season is in full swing. The temperatures are dropping and daylight hours are shrinking.  As one drives through the countryside, farmers are gathering their harvest of corn and soybeans. Farm stands selling apples, pumpkins and squash seem to appear around every corner. The new life of Spring and the explosive growth of Summer are now manifested in the abundance that one cannot help but notice.  This season is marked by harvest festivals in many states throughout the region, much as it is in agricultural regions throughout the world.  We celebrate the grace of abundant food that should be adequate to sustain us through the long, cold winter ahead.

Thanksgiving Celebration in the US

In the United States, our harvest season culminates on the fourth Thursday of the month with the national holiday of Thanksgiving. The holiday has its roots in the earliest years of the settlement of what has become the United States. It commemorates the feast celebrated after the European pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World.  Fifty-three Pilgrims who survived difficult conditions feasted with some 90 Native Americans responsible for helping the foreigners to adapt their ways to their new surroundings.  The colonists were not only thankful to God for an abundant harvest but also grateful to the natives who generously shared their knowledge of the land and its ways, knowledge without which the colonists may not have survived their second winter in the New World.  Some nearly 400 years later, families, whether rich or poor, gather in homes all across the country to commemorate the first Thanksgiving and give thanks for the abundance they enjoy.

The Thanksgiving holiday is centered around the family meal, with a large roasted turkey as the star of the show.  The grand bird is surrounded by side dishes of all kinds and more than one delicious dessert. As the designated chef for the big day, my responsibility is to make sure that no one leaves hungry and that everyone gets the chance to enjoy one of his or her favorite dishes. The whole celebration cries out “Abundance!” (perhaps even over-indulgence.)  For many, Thanksgiving remains the favorite holiday of the year. For most of us it is permeated with a genuine and profound sense of gratitude for the blessings of family and friends. It is a day when we can deeply appreciate that which we have and not focus on what we might still want. The sense of gratitude is real and palpable. Invariably, no matter who leads it, the opening prayer asks for blessings on those who do not have adequate food or shelter.

We easily forget the poor

While the poor are with us in our prayers and in the spirit of gratitude that permeates our Thanksgiving celebration, I have come to realize that we can sometimes leave our concerns for them at the dinner table.  In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving has become the biggest shopping day of the year, contributing to the sense that we should continue to celebrate the privilege of excess.  In contrast, as I reflect on the gospel message, the appropriate response to blessing and grace, beyond mere gratitude, is to share with others who are in need.  I must not only feel grateful, I must act generously.  But for me, like for many, gratitude comes easily, but generosity is a lot more difficult. In fact our feelings of gratitude can even lead us into a place of comfort and complacency.  I can become content with regularly thanking God for my many blessings and forget those who are in need of my generosity.  I feel good about loving God but don’t feel compelled to show love of neighbour.  I am almost embarrassed as I reflect on how in our early years of marriage Crystal and I were often looking for soldiers, sailors or others who were far from home to be part of our family’s holiday celebrations. It seems that, as we prospered, our concern for those in need of a family dinner experience diminished.  Now we might contribute to dinners or other events for the hungry and the homeless, but we don’t invite them to our table. It strikes me that generosity with our excess is no substitute for sharing our blessed lives with others.

How about sharing our spiritual blessings?

It further strikes me that this notion of putting gratitude into action through generous sharing doesn’t apply only to material blessings.  As I have been blessed to grow in my faith, I am ever more grateful but ever more conscious of my responsibility to share the gift of faith with others.  The call of Jesus to go forth and make disciples of all nations is a personal mission I know I must actively live out.  As I come to appreciate the abundance of joy and peace promised to those who follow Christ, the more compelled I am to get to work.  It is not hard in this day and age to recognize spiritual poverty in our world.  I know God has richly blessed me with a wonderful Catholic faith and a dynamic and holy wife who shares that faith. Yet, I remain reticent to share that faith with others, even with my own family.  I judge that I don’t know enough and that I don’t practice what I might preach.  I let myself be comfortable with committing to get better at prayer, more regular in daily Mass attendance and seeking reconciliation. I allow myself the space to imagine that if I will spend more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament in adoration and commit to a regular morning prayer routine, then I will be ready to evangelize.  If I get holier, maybe then I will get more generous.  I suspect it is fear that keeps me from sharing what is perhaps the greatest gift I have to give anyone.  If I have come to understand about how deeply God loves me and how He desires to be united with all of His children, how can I remain silent?  If by voicing my faith I can draw even one soul closer to Christ, why would I shy away? Yet I do. So my prayer this Thanksgiving is for myself and for all of us to be thankful to God for all of the many gifts, material or spiritual, that He has so abundantly bestowed on us and to have the strength and the courage to generously share them with those we encounter who are in need of His loving goodness.

 

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CRYSTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN

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Each Other’s Teachers

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How the Young and the Old Learn from Each Other

CRYSTAL

As a regular reader of the Catholic magazine Magnificat, I have appreciated many aspects of the monthly publication, including summaries of the lives of little known saints, daily mass readings, as well as reflections relating to the Scriptures from both lay and religious contributors. This month, I was surprised and amused by a different type of introduction to the monthly edition, as presented by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P. He shared an anecdote that he found online:

 “A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of kids while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”  The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”  Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

No Good Bye

This story of a little girl’s confidence delighted me! It may be that her response resonated with me in a particular way because Kevin and I currently have the joy of living under the same roof with our three grandchildren ages 6, 4 and 2. As we daily experience the world from their perspective and hear their questions and responses to matters of faith, I have come to better appreciate that in their simplicity of thought, they may well have as much or more appreciation for the things of faith than I do.

For example, about a year ago, I was leaving daily mass with our young grandson and encouraged him to genuflect to say ‘good-bye’ to Jesus. He responded simply that he didn’t need to say good-bye because Jesus is always with him. Indeed! I stood corrected.

Why Mosquitoes?

On another occasion, I sat in the bedroom with our granddaughter during a violent thunderstorm that had frightened her. As we whiled away the time, she started asking questions about what I did every morning as I sat in my chair in my prayer room. When I answered that I was talking to God, she asked if He ever talked back. I responded that He did, but not in a physical voice, but in ways that came up in the different things that I would read about in my reflection book, or in thoughts that I had.  She then asked me to please take a question to God that had been troubling her: “Why did God make mosquitoes?”  I promised her to ask Him and after I quietly assured her that it was safe to go to sleep I snuck downstairs and googled all the possible good things there were about mosquitoes. J

I am trying to convey through both of these examples how absolutely privileged I am to be reminded of some basics of the faith from our young grandchildren. I am delighted by Joe’s absolute conviction of Jesus’ ubiquitous presence, and Grace’s trust that God has a purpose for all things in His creation. In fact, not only am I delighted; I am challenged to enter into my relationship with the Divine in a more child-like manner, with great confidence and trust.

Learning from a Child

Child-like trust has been a virtue for which I have been praying for a few years. It seems that God is answering my prayers by sending down that grace through the lives of our young grandchildren. When I see our little ones exhibit characteristics of faithfulness, such as humility or trust, it makes it easier for me to imitate those virtues. As an adult, it can be easy to fall into complacency in spiritual matters and take for granted the power of God alive in the world.  For example, we can routinely enter into the marvelous happening of the Mass we attend, and rather than worshipping in awe, we yawn our way through the celebration. We might participate by sitting, standing and parroting back the appropriate responses, but then leave the church with no appreciation for what is arguably the most remarkable event that takes place in the world today.

A contrast to that type of detached experience is one I had just this last month as I attended a daily Mass with our four-year-old granddaughter. Sitting in the front row, she had a clear view of the priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As she watched and listened to the priest saying the prayers at the altar, she started whispering, “Is that bread Jesus yet?”  “No, not yet” I responded. She asked several more time and each time received the same reply. Finally, when the altar bells were rung, she asked again, “Is it Jesus now?” “Yes! It is Jesus!” I answered, and felt an incredible surge of love and gratitude well up in my heart.

Yes, I have ‘believed’ in transubstantiation for years. Yes, I have prayed for greater faith to bolster my belief in the Eucharist. But on this day, as my little one was in awe that NOW Jesus was really truly present, it was an even greater understanding. Four-year-old Grace has unwittingly taught me that I should never take for granted the incredible gift of the supernatural presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. She trusts in what she cannot see or understand.  I will continue to pray that I will have that same childlike trust and to see that God is leading me to greater faithfulness through the people he places in my life, including its youngest members.

What Children Learn from Us

Of course, as adults we should be open to both learning valuable lessons from children as well as passing along the wisdom we have gleaned over the years. For example, our little Joey would not have known that God is always with him had he not been told this again and again by his mother.  Grace would not have had the inclination to ask God about mosquitos had she not seen me every morning, sitting in my ‘prayer chair’ and conversing with God.  And as much as our words have an impact on how others come to know the faith, our actions will inevitably speak even clearer. How many people have come to associate Christian faithfulness with Mother Teresa, perhaps not reading about or understanding her motivation for her selfless actions in ministering to the poor, but being drawn to the good will and love inherent in her actions?

When I read news reports about the decline of morals in young people, or hear people lament how self-absorbed and materialistic the young generation is, I wonder if there are simply not enough good examples of people who are living differently from the values of the secular world. And of course, we must always begin evaluating the answer to this question by examining our own lives.  How do my actions demonstrate an awareness of God’s presence and love and my desire to bring that love into the world?

Pure acts of holiness are hard to ignore.  They shine brightly all on their own. Perhaps for most of us they are only observed in venues like our own homes or workplace, but sometimes they even make it to the world stage.  Mother Teresa’s exhortation to “do small things with great love” is perhaps the best means to live the faith and teach the faith to others. The beauty of her advice is that we can all put it into practice. We don’t need a degree or a title or money. Whether we are adults or children, we can accept her challenge and put it into practice, learning from each other and encouraging each other and thereby making the world a better place for future generations.

 

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LEARNING FROM CHILDREN

Sep 14

KEVIN

One of the benefits of retirement is the ability to attend Mass on a daily basis. As should be expected, the graces flowing from the Eucharist are nourishing and strengthening. However, another special grace that I have received has come about as I become ever more appreciative of the brief homilies our parish priests are willing to bless us with each day. Each of our priests seems to share something different in terms of perspective.  Whether it’s the pastor’s efforts to help us to understand Church teaching and its history, or the retired pastor’s wonderful way of helping us to understand the transforming power of Christ’s love present in our daily lives, each of our priests encourages and challenges me to think differently and to seek a better understanding of who Jesus is and who He wants me to be.

Humble as Children?

The latest thought provoker to join us is our new associate pastor, assigned to our parish fresh from seminary. Although young in years, he is obviously very wise and learned. He has already demonstrated the ability to encourage me to take a fresh look at how I see the world, sometimes by saying things that at first blush don’t seem to make sense to me.

In one of his homilies last week he was reflecting on the virtue of humility. He called on us to be “as humble as children.” My immediate reaction was “What? Children humble? That doesn’t compute with my experience at all.”  As I reflected on our current situation of living with our three little grandchildren ages 2,4 and 6, I was having a hard time to use the word “humble” as describing their behavior. While these little ones are absolutely delightful and well-behaved children, at least the 2 and 4 year olds would like to have you believe the universe should revolve around them. That’s not my idea of humility.

But knowing that Jesus loved the little children and the fact that Father Robinson was usually so insightful, I began to contemplate the question of how I might actually see our little darlings as God’s humble little creatures. As I thought about their daily existence, it didn’t take long for my mind to be filled with examples of how dependent they were for absolutely everything. I thought of their dear mother who cooks every meal, cleans their clothes and is constantly comforting them from even the smallest of physical or emotional injury. They need to ask permission for the food they want to eat, the times they may play outside, and when they are going to be told to clean up, bathe, and go to bed.  It quickly became apparent to me that their humility has nothing to do with ego and everything to do with dependence. These children need their dear mother for almost everything. As they get a little older you can see they desire independence yet recognize that they can’t necessarily do much on their own. They may not realize it but their need is real and their need is pure.

We Can’t Go it Alone

“I need” is a most humbling statement. It tells us at some level that we are not equipped to handle whatever circumstance we are facing. “I need” means that I must reach out to one who is superior to myself in knowledge, skills, wisdom or ability to work through one challenge or another.  For little children, humility then becomes an ever-present reality. In that way they truly have it over us.  The world would have us believe that humility is a function of ego, not of reality. We are encouraged in Western culture to pursue a positive self esteem and total self-reliance. Wow! Good luck with that.  While there is merit in moving in that general direction, setting forth such an unattainable goal of fierce independence will inevitably lead us to sadness, frustration and perhaps even despair as we come to the inevitable realization that we can’t go it alone.  There should be little wonder why so many more people are seeking counseling or even contemplating suicide these days.

We Need Support

Life can be challenging at times. For some, the challenges can go on for a long period of time. At some time in our lives, we all have had the experience of coming to depend on one thing or another. Some dependencies can be positive, like the example of children depending on their parents for proper care. Others can become dependent on another person, some on drugs, alcohol, pornography or other addictive practices to help to face day to day life.

Ultimately, those that look for dependence in this way often find that all of those things ultimately fail to provide the peace they are seeking for their souls.  Fortunately for us, our Catholic faith provides us with the means to live a humble life in a healthy way, where we believe that we can depend on God for our needs. By turning our life over to Him, we can declare our real and pure need like God’s little children knowing that He will always bring us a measure of comfort for that which troubles us. Sure, as adults, we can feed ourselves, look after our hygiene and move about in the world.  Yet we are not immune to the pains, struggles, and disappointments that are an inevitable part of life on earth. Just like our little grandchildren who run to their mother for comfort, we need to run to our Father in heaven in our times of need.

So I have to say a little prayer of thanksgiving to Father Robinson for his valuable lesson in humility. Not only did he challenge me to think differently about our little grandchildren, but he helped me to see how I need to look at all of my brothers and sisters in the world.

People Need Us

I have come to recognize that the world would have us look at others in the context of their wants and their utility to us. How often this leads to the attitude that these ‘others’ are not deserving of our assistance. Yet in the spirit of humility and true Christian love, we are invited to see their expression of need and respond with generous and compassionate hearts and hands.

Much as I can’t resist the pleading hands of my four-year-old granddaughter who needs to be picked up so that she can see what’s going on at the altar over the top of the heads of all the grownups, I have to be more open to the true needs of the poor, the immigrants  and the vulnerable.  I am learning that rather than hearing them say “I deserve” or “I have a right,” I need to be open to understand that all they are humbly seeking to communicate is “ I need help.” When we get down on our knees we know that our God will never withhold His grace of mercy and healing when we humbly approach Him as one of His children with our true and pure needs. In my prayer, I ask for the graces to live as a true child of God and follow His lead in showing mercy and kindness to those in our world today who are in need.

 

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A Stranger’s Life-Giving Gift

August 1

This inspiring first person account is the story of parish members who got involved to save a critically ill parishioner—and how the donor turned out to be a person from another country who wished to remain anonymous!

CRYSTAL

About ten years ago, a dear friend was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphona, a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system.  The news was shocking on several fronts: Sue was a young fifty-year-old; she was in peak physical condition, exercising actively her entire life; and her lifestyle, including eating a healthy diet and being a non-smoker, would be considered ideal.  Yet the diagnosis was irrefutable—and frightening.

After consulting with the best physicians in the country, she realized that she had very few options. The normal plan of chemotherapy and other treatments seemed to have no impact on this aggressive form of the disease. When the doctors concluded that there was a very low chance of survival unless an extremely active treatment course was taken, they recommended intense chemotherapy to kill all the white blood cells in her body, then locating a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor to create new, healthy cells. The risk was clear—with no white blood cells in her body, any minor infection would kill her. And the chance of her body rejecting the bone marrow was extremely high…

 

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Crystal and Kevin Sullivan

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We Need Potters More than Teachers

JULY 1

KEVIN

Over the past year, Crystal and I have had the opportunity to observe our daughter providing homeschool education for our six-year old grandson. It has been delightful to not only witness Joey’s amazing educational advances, but also to see the marvelous interaction between mother and son.  As a result of a pending divorce, the prospects for continued homeschooling for her children is being challenged. The suitability of our daughter, a university educated, English literature major’s ability to teach is being called into question. The prospect of being forced to place the children into floundering public schools is not only disconcerting but has prompted me to reflect on education in general and the role of teachers specifically.  What does it take to be a good teacher anyway?

Obviously children need to learn in order to prosper in life. Reading, writing and arithmetic skills are essentials for every child and serve as the fundamental basis of any educational system.  Even the least trained educator, with the aid of an established curriculum, should be able to handle the task of helping a young child become functionally literate and learn basic life skills. But in this day and age, the emphasis in the West is on educating the next generation of mathematicians, scientists and computer gurus. Admittedly, the educational rigor and teaching skills necessary to develop in-depth knowledge of various subjects and the ability to apply principles to real world problems may require additional expertise and more highly skilled teachers. In fact, I am very beholden to those teachers who have had the patience to bring “slower” students like myself through the intricacies of advanced math, science and language. Their skill and dedication is to be commended.

Who are the Great Teachers?

However, there are lots of teachers, many of them in this day and age who happen to be homeschoolers, who are very capable of passing along basic knowledge and skills to students.  Is being a good teacher enough? What does it take to be a great teacher? When I watch our daughter… when I think of the special teachers I have had in Catholic schools and at the public university… what is it that I see that highlights greatness? What I have experienced beyond the mere act of learning is the life-shaping influence that is at work when we experience a great teacher. Whenever I hear someone reflect on the experience of their overall education, inevitably they will share the opinion that one particular teacher had a profound influence on who they are as a person. So, the great teacher is the one whose interest in the student doesn’t stop at their learning but focuses on their future. In other words, the great teacher is not focused merely on education but also on formation.

 

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CRYSTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN

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Retreats for Women Prisoners

JUNE 5

Crystal shares with our readers what made her join a retreat team for women prisoners, and some of the heart-rending stories she came across.

“Oh my goodness, why in the world are you going into prison to give a retreat? Aren’t you afraid for your own safety?”  This has been the usual response I receive from well meaning friends and family members when I tell them that I have joined a group of women who present weekend retreats within the prison walls to women whose sentences range from one year to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

The Terrible World of Prison

To be honest, when a friend of mine initially invited me to join the prison ministry, my first reaction was guarded.  In our society, prisoners are a group of people for whom most people feel little sympathy. There is a general attitude that they deserve whatever unpleasant conditions they experience while incarcerated. It is easy for most of us to feel superior to the imprisoned, because we judge we would not have ever committed the crimes for which they are being held. Movies that portray the rough, brutal manner of prisoners continue the perception that they are of a lower class of human beings, without conscience or morals. How easily we all make the mistake of condemning people without realizing the individual circumstances that result in their imprisonment.  We who have no direct experience with anyone who is imprisoned can allow fear of violence and anger at brutality to keep our distance from ministering to them. We can think of prisoners as ‘them’, not as our brothers and sisters in Christ. How quickly my eyes were opened once I took the time to learn the truth.

The United States has the dubious distinction of being the leader in the number of people being held in prison, with 2.3 million people incarcerated. This sad statistic doesn’t reflect the individual causes of incarceration: prisons and jails are literally overflowing with poor, uneducated people, about half of whom suffer from mental health or substance abuse problems. Once I started reading about the true conditions in prison, I learned other alarming facts: “We’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. We’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole…We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug-dealer’—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvement they might make in their lives.” (Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson)

First Visit to the Prison

As I read these words, I was immediately reminded of the famous quote by Ricardo Sanchez: “The devil knows your name but calls you by your sin: God knows your sin but calls you by your name. “ As a sinner who will be forever grateful for the mercy of God in my own life, I was hooked. I joined the Kairos prison ministry and began preparations for my first retreat.

I will admit that when I entered prison for the first time I was initially a bit nervous.  As our group walked through the guard station and onto the grounds, I heard the click of the gates locking behind us and saw the barbed wire looming above.  As we walked through the prison campus, I noticed large groups of women being led by guards from one location to another. Here was my first surprise! Dressed in identical clothing of white shirts and blue pants, many were young, normal looking women who could just have easily been walking to their next high school gym class. Many waved and shouted hellos to us, knowing that we were coming as ‘friends’ for the retreat that only a few were lucky enough to be given permission to attend.

Once inside the gym, women started trickling in, looking for a place to sit. As I started to talk with them, I realized that they were more nervous than I was! I tried as much as possible to make them feel welcome before the retreat began, thanking them for coming and taking a chance on us old ‘church ladies.’  How quickly suspicion and fear melts away when we can sit with each other at a table and share a smile.

Stories of Pain and Hope

Throughout the next two days, eight of the retreat leaders stood up and witnessed how God’s love and mercy had changed their lives. One elderly woman, Ann, shared the pain of being sexually abused by her father beginning when she was seven years old, then being “shared” with his friends to pay for his alcohol addiction. Another woman, Mary, spoke of the grief she experienced when her father abandoned the family; her mother and siblings fell into a life of extreme poverty. Susan spoke of the shame she felt when her boyfriend coerced her into having an abortion, and the deep regret she felt for having done so once she became a Christian. Delilah shared that as a teenager she became hooked on drugs, which led her to into petty theft and imprisonment. One by one, these “church ladies” stepped up and shared that their lives had been filled with abuse, poverty, addictions and bad decisions.  But each story was also filled with the eventual awareness that God was there all along, loving them and giving them the grace to forgive themselves and those who harmed them.

As the retreat continued, the prisoners became more and more willing to share their own stories. Many had suffered both physical and sexual abuse, most had lived in poverty, and many were incarcerated for crimes that occurred while they were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Jane shared her story of how she was with her boyfriend who made a stop to buy drugs.  While she waited in the backseat of the car, she heard shots which she later learned left two men dead. She was serving thirty years in prison for “her part” in the crime.  Christina shared that she became hooked on drugs given to her by her father before he sexually assaulted her, and she later turned to prostitution to support her habit. Donna admitted that after she became addicted to heroine, she neglected her children and was sentenced to prison for endangering their lives. Their stories were all heart-breaking and sadly similar. They were raised in an environment filled with danger and with little or no exposure to faith.

By the end of the retreat, many of the women state that being imprisoned was in fact a blessing from God, as it was there that they had the opportunity to come clean from their addictions. Not only that, but for some it was the first time in their lives that they were exposed to reading the Bible, attending church services as well as being with other women who acted as Christian mentors for them.

In the closing ceremony, the retreat leaders form a circle and sing to all of the prisoners this song; “You are loved, you are beautiful. You are a gift from God, Love’s own creation. You are a gift to everyone… you are loved, God danced the day you were born.”  On that first retreat and all the others I have attended since, tears flow freely from every face, some tremendously moved that for the first time in their life, they truly understand that they are loved by God and by others, unconditionally. We exchange hugs and promises for prayers, believing that our sisters in Christ now understand that they are accepted and loved, by us and by God.

A few months ago, an elderly lady approached me in tears at the end of the retreat, saying, “Thank you so much for coming. In here, we are ‘offenders’ and are called by a number. You loved us and called us by our names.” I think that’s God way of winking at me and saying…. Carry on!


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Unexpected Experiences Each Time

MAY 15

Crystal shares with our readers how deeply and positively she has been transformed by retreats—both the retreats she attended and the ones she gave.

I can still remember with great clarity the first retreat I ever attended. It was in August of 1991, when I was thirty-five years old. Though I had been raised to be a devout Catholic, my faith faded as I attended a public high school and university. I was more wrapped up in worldly pleasures and success than in taking part in any Church activity.
By the time I was thirty-five, I had all the outward trappings of success, being married, with two young children in a comfortable home, but was increasingly unhappy with my life. Perhaps that is why the invitation to attend a Marriage Encounter weekend retreat was so appealing. I thought it would be an opportunity to improve our marriage and hopefully to get my husband Kevin to change. Little did I know as I entered that hotel with my suitcase packed with a bottle of wine, a swimming suit and a big book to read during spare hours that it would be my life that would be forever changed.

Startling and Exciting
The retreat was led by three couples and a priest, with each presentation building on the premise that their lives were renewed when they started to live God’s plan for their marriage. Needless to say, the swimming suit was never used and the book never got opened, and by the end of the weekend, the positive effect of the retreat on our marriage was startling and exciting.
However, I did have one huge hurdle to overcome, because over the years I had become an agnostic, not truly believing that God existed or, if He did, that He had anything to do with my life here on earth. As a result of that first retreat, I started a quest to find the truth about God. I read book after book about the various religions of the world and still felt dissatisfied.
Ultimately, I read a book about the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Mother in Medjugorje. It was after reading the book that I simply asked God to let me know if this could possibly be true, that He truly existed and that He loved me. What followed was to be the single most powerful experience of my life, as I was overcome with a virtual flood of powerful graces of love and mercy. In that moment, as unworthy as I was, the gift of faith had been given to me as a tremendous grace.

Embarrassing and Revealing Dream
With a newly enriched faith, I began to desire more and more opportunities to know God. Kevin and I attended a Couple Prayer Retreat, as well as other days of enrichment, where we learned how to communicate our love for God and each other in new ways. Each time I felt like I was beginning to draw nearer to God, but I desired more. Noticing the ever-increasing number of books on the spiritual life that were lining my bookshelf, Kevin suggested that perhaps I should organize my reading by taking part in a Master’s program at a local Catholic Seminary. This was how I found myself at a retreat center with a priest who instructed the students to ask God to send us a dream that would give us direction for what He wanted us to know.
The next morning, as the other students at the breakfast table recounted their dreams which seemed so holy and spiritual, I felt like shrinking away into my seat. I reluctantly shared how my dream had been superficial, as I was going around from shop to shop searching for pearls, but was unable to find any. In my dream, I returned home and was surprised to find a shop in my basement, and there were the pearls.
The priest happened to be walking by as I was recounting the dream and trying to laugh off my embarrassment that I was not good material for the spiritual world. He stopped in his tracks and pulled me aside. With great gentleness and encouragement, he explained the dream to me and suggested I read the Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. It was another opportunity to learn not only how much God loved me, but how much more there was to learn about Him. It occurred to me that there would never be enough days to learn about God’s great love and mercy, even if I lived to be one hundred and read every book I could. Up to this point, all of God’s interventions and messages of love came without any effort on my part, other than showing up!

Nature Walks
More years went by and I continued to take part in different programs offered by our parish. One day, I received an invitation to take part in a silent retreat being held at an Abbey close by. Everyone that knows me knew that the first miracle had already happened, that an outgoing and talkative woman like me would even be drawn to such an experience. Once again, I arrived at the Abbey with no understanding of what to expect other than to open myself up to God’s presence. Even though I had brought numerous spiritual books along with me, I barely made a dent in them. I found myself attracted to the outdoor grounds, wandering for hours down the trails and roads around the Abbey. Not being an outdoorsy type, I was surprised by how close I felt to God in the beauty of creation, just listening to the birds, feeling the warmth of the sunshine, and enjoying the colors of the various wild flowers. As the weekend came to a close, I was reluctant to leave the quiet comfort of being alone with God, without the usual chatter that fills my days. I became determined to find this solitude and peace within my own home, dedicating a space there to enter into communion with God. With God’s grace, I have been able to continue this practice to this day, rising early in the morning before the sun comes up to spend time with my Jesus.

Learning from Prisoners
Just a few years ago, a friend shared with me the joy that she had experienced as a result of giving a retreat to women prisoners. Prison ministry had never even been a remote thought, but suddenly I felt called to be part of an ecumenical group of women who entered prison and through our witness talks brought them the messages of God’s great love and forgiveness. On my first retreat, I shared my story of some of the good and bad decisions I had made in my life. When I returned to the table, one of the prisoners turned to me with a great big smile on her face and said, “Miss Crystal, I think you belong in here with the rest of us.” And indeed I do! “There but for the grace of God go I” is the saying that applies to me. The women who are in prison are all beloved by God, and so eager to know what it means to be loved unconditionally. Most of us cannot imagine the poverty, the abuse and the addictions that have brought them to where they are. Frequently I hear them comment that they are grateful to be in prison, as it was there that they have learned about God and His mercy. In these retreats, I am constantly in awe of how much goodness exists in the hearts of all God’s people, and to never make judgments about others.

Every retreat I have ever attended has been unique, each bringing me a new gift of understanding that I had not expected. I am thankful to God for granting me the gift of faith and for giving me so many opportunities and ways to love Him. With as many years as I have left, I hope to continue to put myself in His presence and wait… for He is in fact a God of surprises!


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For Couples

Living Marriage as a Vocation

April 01

Reflecting on their thirty-three years of marriage, Kevin sees the inadequacy of youthful romance and of other worldly views of this way of life. While “marriage as sacrament” is certainly very meaningful, the real beauty of it is seen when couples live it as a vocation and a mission.

For over twenty-five years Crystal and I have been trying to live out God’s plan for our married life. That’s the good news. The not so good news is that we have been married for thirty-three years!

In the first years of our marriage Crystal and I were living what most would consider a successful life. We had two beautiful and healthy children, a comfortable house with two cars in the garage and enough extra money to enjoy at least one extended vacation a year. By the world’s standards we had everything one could hope for in a marriage. Why was it that we, two faithful Catholics, found ourselves struggling to be joyful and loving with one another?  What we came to discover on a Marriage Encounter retreat back in 1991 was that our relationship had developed much like so many others had in our country, drifting from feelings of love into marriage because it seemed the next right step.

Romantic Love Not Enough

Often, feelings of love and romance convince couples that they are meant to be together for life, only to find out a few years down the road that these romantic feelings are not strong enough to overcome a lack of true understanding of what it takes to give life to one another for the long haul. We found ourselves to be much like so many of the couples whom we currently meet when we facilitate their marriage preparation.  Even when these young couples have good role models, they come to us with no real conscious recognition of what it takes to live a committed married life. It comes as no surprise that more than half of these relationships fail. Relationships we fall into are much more likely to turn out differently, perhaps even badly, than those we choose to enter into with our eyes wide open.

It was on that retreat weekend in 1991 that Crystal and I committed to stop living our married life according to the world’s plan for our lives. We decided to put aside the notions we might have grown up with concerning what marriage was supposed to be. Instead, we chose to be married according to God’s plan for us. It has been a very rewarding journey full of new discoveries and insights into not only what God has in store for us, but also for what He requires of each of us. As we began to work together in marriage ministry, we grew in our appreciation for the difference that seeing marriage as a sacrament—as opposed to a mere living arrangement—could make. Over time, understanding that our lives together could be a source of grace and strength not only for us and our family but also for others was satisfying and rewarding. The more we came to appreciate the difference our sacramental life could make, the more we understood how blessed we were.

Marriage as Sacrament: A Blessing

So, clearly, marriage as a sacrament is a good thing. So much better than the “contractual” 50/50 relationship the world asks us to shoot for or even the “covenant” relationship evangelical Christians teach. Yet, no matter how good living as a sacrament was, it somehow didn’t make it that much easier to live out on a day to day basis. Don’t get me wrong, it was more comforting knowing that I wanted to do what God wanted me to do, but the demands of long hours away from home and a successful career often left me stressed and anxious.  Crystal was doing a magnificent job of raising our two children and providing for a warm and welcoming household.  Why wasn’t I at peace then? As I look back on those years I have come to understand that, while Crystal embraced her role as wife and mother, I still clung to my role as provider of the family.  It wasn’t until a few years ago, as we were working on a new retreat format for couples, that I came to appreciate that marriage was not only a sacrament;  it should also be treated as a vocation—a life’s work.

Seeing married life as a vocation has become a powerful distinction for me to try to comprehend. It pretty much changes everything. Perhaps, most significantly, vocation requires a conscious choice—a choice which, because I failed to consciously make it, I lived for too long as a career person who just happened to be married with two children.  Family was a distraction from my real life’s work of being a successful business professional. Choosing a vocation requires inquiry and knowledge of the choices available.

Foolish Assumptions about Marriage

Unfortunately for me and for too many others, we form our assumptions early in life about what our state in life is to be.  We don’t question our assumptions, we don’t explore other options and we further assume that we don’t really need to learn anything before taking on the role of being a spouse. However, I have now come to better appreciate how looking at life through the ‘vocation lens’ can be truly instructive. For example, early in life I chose to be a lawyer. I knew a few lawyers in my hometown. I had seen several on television over the years. Obviously, that ‘experience’ of lawyers didn’t equip me to be one.  Likewise, in order to be a doctor, priest, religious sister or a spouse requires more than the vicarious experience of others.  It requires that we acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities needed before we can expect to adequately serve others in our chosen vocation.  It is truly unfortunate that Catholic couples are not adequately alerted to this reality during their preparation for the sacrament of marriage. If, before they exchange their wedding vows, couples were required to have even a small measure of the education and training that priests and religious receive, they would be far better equipped to live out their married vocation.

As I have come to contemplate the power and beauty of vocations in our Catholic Church, I have reached a much deeper appreciation of the gift of our priests and religious. As difficult as it can be to live in marriage and try to bring Christ to a wife and family, I can only imagine the challenges of bringing Christ into our entire Church community.  I have come to understand that, while living out a vocation can be tremendously rewarding, there can also be periods where it may seem tedious, mundane or thankless. For me and for all Catholic Christians, it is at these times when the added dimension of the mission we have been given can provide a little inspiration. I need to recall that my vocation is not only in service to the people I meet, but also that it is work done to advance the mission given to us by Christ when we were commanded by Him “to go forth and make disciples of all nations.”

These days Crystal and I are living in a little bit of chaos, as we share our home with our daughter and her three young children.  Even as I grow weary of the noise, commotion and clutter, I know that I am being graced with the opportunity to live out my vocation as husband, father and grandfather.  I am reminded of this each time we gather at the dinner table and share how He has blessed each one of us that day. While the world would tell us that as a retired couple we should be enjoying an escape from the cold of our northern climate, I can feel confident knowing that we are right where our vocation calls us to be at this time.


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For Couples

Finding Strength in Tragedy

MARCH 15

A married man shares with us how he found peace and strength as his sister and his wife faced cancer, and when his daughter’s marriage is on the rocks.

Life lessons can be learned in a variety of ways. Sometimes they come from the wisdom of an older family member, teacher or priest. Sometimes they come as the consequence of having worked hard to achieve success, and the struggle was rewarded. At other times, we learn life lessons through our hardships and sorrows.  I recently received a text from one of my younger sisters who just last year underwent treatment for an aggressive cancer. She informed me that in her follow-up visit to the doctor, he had discovered a new mass on one of her internal organs. Her note, which seemed unusually peaceful under the circumstances, asked for prayers and expressed concern not for her own health but for how the news might impact her husband and their three daughters. Fighting through my own tears, I offered her my prayers and began to struggle with how I could possibly help her deal with the potentially tragic news. Words like “never lose hope”, “it’s going to be OK” or even “we will keep you in our prayers” seemed so inadequate.

The next day, as I offered prayers and my daily Mass intention for her, I continued to reflect on what counsel an older brother might give in such a time of doubt, fear and suffering.  I am deeply grateful that the Holy Spirit quickly gave me an answer. In prayer after Holy Communion I found myself reminded of some advice I myself had received several years ago from a Catholic priest in Ireland where I was scheduled to deliver a talk to a large group.  Crystal was supposed to have been giving the talk with me but had needed to stay home to maintain a vigil over her gravely ill mother, a woman I too loved with all my heart.  It was just before I was scheduled to speak that the priest, who was aware of my suffering, approached me and offered to pray with me. With great confidence, he encouraged me to “live in the present moment.” He encouraged me to trust that I was where God wanted me to be at that moment and that by focusing on being there in that parish church I would be deeply blessed. As I listened intently to his words I could feel the anguish leave me as if my heart had finally just left Chicago and arrived back to me in that little Irish town.  I made it through the whole presentation with my voice cracking only slightly as I had to explain Crystal’s absence. But beyond just getting through it, I also noticed an overwhelming sense of the goodness of what God was doing in the Apostolate I was speaking about and was overcome with an appreciation of the beauty of those gathered that day to be drawn closer to Christ.

A Most Valuable Lesson

The lesson that I learned that day has truly been one of the most valuable of my life. The notion of living in the present moment is a powerful one and a blessed one. That day I began to realize that by being present to where I find myself at any given time, I can let go of the pain and suffering of something that has happened in the past as well as be relieved of the fear and doubt for the future. The call to live in the present moment allows me to focus more clearly on and appreciate the blessings that I have, to see God’s abundant love for me every minute of my day!

As I continued to ponder my sister’s struggle, I also recalled a conversation that I had recently with a friend whose wife was battling cancer. I had related to him that, as strange as it sounded, walking with Crystal through her bout with cancer was one of the most blessed times of my life. I almost felt guilty saying that, but it was true. It was during that time that I came to appreciate the gift of each day. While Crystal’s prognosis is good, it was a wake up call to remember the precious gift of each day we have together.

A Transforming Moment

The discovery of the power and grace of living in the present moment doesn’t mean we will be free from pain, suffering or fear.   There will always be times when we are painfully aware of the myriad hardships of life, whether our own or someone else’s.  However, as the skills of “living in the present” strengthen, hardship can offer transformative insights. As an example, I recall a time during Crystal’s cancer battle when we sat together in the hospital treatment room. Crystal was reading a book, her head covered with a scarf over her because of her lack of hair caused by the toxic chemicals dripping into her bloodstream.  As I gazed upon her I could not help but be drawn into the pain and suffering she had been going through in struggling with her disease and the uncertainty it created for our future.  It was at the very moment that the sympathetic tears began to well up in me that Crystal looked up from her book and gave me one of her cute little smiles.  Immediately my thoughts were drawn to her special beauty and tender heart. For the rest of our time in that room my heart was filled with awe and wonder at how well she was handling things. For the first time I finally understood what the words grace and dignity were all about. In the presence of this magnificent image of a suffering servant my heart was drawn ever closer to her. I will always cherish that moment as I will always cherish her.

The practical person in me would caution that one shouldn’t put too much stock in living in the present moment lest one forget the lessons of past suffering or not adequately prepare for what is to come. However, the recent arrival of our daughter and her three young children into our home as a result of a pending divorce has reminded me of Christ’s own admonition in Matthew 18:3 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I see these blessed little grandchildren in their near constant joy of having an on-going sleepover at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Sure, they are innocent and don’t comprehend the pain and suffering of a broken family, yet their ability to see only the joy of their time with us doesn’t seem like it would give them enough time to be sad.  Likewise, the unabashed joy of a little eighteen-month-old toddler racing toward me with an ear-to-ear smile doesn’t leave me with a whole lot of time to worry about the future either. So, at this present moment, I will close with a request of prayers for my precious sister, our daughter and grandchildren. I promise to pray that each of you will be open to all of the love God has for you this day.

“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow. The same loving Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and everyday. Either he will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.” (St. Francis de Sales)

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For Couples

FEED MY LAMBS

12

How a married woman finds strength for her life and ministry from the way Jesus treated the apostles.

“When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered Him, “No.” So He said to them, ”Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment for he was lightly clad and jumped into the sea… When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? He said to Him, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21: 4-7, 15)

For the last several years, I have made it a daily practice to wake early in the morning when the house is still quiet and spend time reading Scripture and praying. On the advice of my spiritual director, I have started keeping a prayer journal where I record the most significant things that are on my mind and heart and what I believe God is trying to teach me.  As I look back over the last three years, I have noticed a clear pattern of God inviting me to greater trust in His providence and greater humility.  It is as if God is trying to tell me that I am His child, to rest in His love and to stop worrying about those things over which I have no control.  One of my daily prayers is asking him to teach me to be simple like a child, satisfied with knowing His will in the present moment.

For this reason, when I recently stumbled upon the gospel reading from John 21, my heart was stirred.  In this reading, the resurrected Jesus is on the shore watching Peter and some of the other disciples fishing without any success. He calls to them, “Children, have you caught anything?” I wonder how these rough and capable fishermen felt about being called children.

In today’s world, we are encouraged and praised for being mature adults, and being child-like is often frowned upon. Yet when I apply Jesus’ words to my own life, I immediately realize that no matter how capable I might think I am, how self-reliant I want to be in my decision making, to Jesus I am but a child.  I realize with a smile how my young grandchildren offer to “help” and though they are full of good intentions and unwarranted self-confidence, their limited skills often make the work twice as difficult and take twice as long to complete. I imagine this is how Jesus feels when I muddle through some project or decision without consulting Him, thinking I have all the skills and knowledge I need to get the job done.  It is as if he has a gentle smile on His face asking me, “Child, have you caught anything?” seeing me spinning my wheels without success.  That is when I try to remember that I am not expected to understand the failures (or even the successes) which occur in our ministries or our family life. Jesus wants me to listen to His advice and cast my nets as He directs me. Often I think I know exactly what I should do to be successful, just like the disciples might have felt as experienced fishermen being told by Jesus where to cast their nets.  If I try to do things my own way, without looking to Jesus for guidance, I will come up as empty as the disciples did that day on the boat.  But knowing that the Lord’s ways are not my ways, I try to remember that He has greater wisdom and I need to trust Him.

The other aspect of the gospel verse that really struck me is the enthusiasm that Peter showed once he realized it was the Lord who was speaking to him. The passage says he tucked in his garment and jumped into the sea. He was willing to get soaked and bedraggled (dare I say looking a little ridiculous) in order to get closer to Jesus. This has me looking at my own response to having Jesus in my life and I worry that I have lost some of my early enthusiasm for evangelization.  I remember early on in my faith journey, shortly after my conversion, that I wanted to talk to everyone about my discovery of faith.  I prayed earnestly to God to tell me what He wanted of me and I would gladly follow in His footsteps. Every opportunity to spread the word about the intercession of Our Blessed Mother or the Marriage Encounter ministry was the most exciting thing I could think of doing. I was so eager to prove my love to Jesus by feeding His lambs.  Now here I am, twenty-five years later, and ponder if it is as important to me as it was in the early years.  When I don’t have the same joy as Peter does in seeing the Lord, I must question whether I am becoming selfish and lukewarm in my faith. When the joy of ministering to others is missing and all I see is the work and what I am giving up, I need to remember that the greatest joy of my life is living as a child of God.

There have certainly been times when despite my best efforts, it seems like nothing is changing for the better. Worldly standards of success, such as low participation in marriage programs, or couples who simply go through the motions in order to get their certificate in preparation for their marriage, can be emotionally draining.  At times, tiredness and frustration set in, and it is tempting for me to want to tell the Lord that I have done enough. But when I try to imagine telling Him that to His face, I realize that I am only giving a small part of what He has given me. If I ask Him how to love Him, He will keep saying the same thing… “My little child, I am not asking you to perform miracles. That is something only I can do. I simply need you to feed my lambs.”

Everyone in ministry understands that there are immense challenges in spreading the Good News. However, with the right attitude, the challenges can be exciting.  My dear husband Kevin is very good at creatively finding new opportunities to evangelize, whether it is through promotion of our local Catholic radio station or writing reflections for our church bulletin. He has the gift of remaining enthusiastic about his faith and generously sharing it with others. With him by my side, these opportunities to share our love for each other and the Lord become a joy. As a result, we have been blessed to witness conversions in marriages and in relationships with God. Knowing that we were a small part of these conversions is exciting but it can only occur when I allow Jesus to work through me and to give myself up to His requests without thinking of the cost.  I then become His child, put my hand in His, and just let Him take me to the little lambs that need His love.


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